In 1780, Benjamin Franklin commissioned a large mahogany box from a London craftsman. His instructions for this custom-made item, intended to house a delicate scientific instrument, were unusually precise. In particular, he urged that special care be taken in selecting the mahogany because, in his words, there was “a great deal of difference in woods that go under that name.” He desired the “finest grained that you can meet with.”
Franklin’s suspicions about what passed for mahogany suggest his awareness of a growing problem at the time: The precious trees were being rapidly depleted. Consequently, the size and quality of available mahogany was becoming increasingly erratic.
This unwelcome environmental reality was a relatively new development. In the early 18th century, when the wood became popular as an exotic luxury commodity, American merchants and ship captains began importing whole cargos of large, excellent mahogany. By the mid-18th century, mahogany had become all the rage for fine furniture in England and colonial North America. Since New World mahoganies grew mostly in regions controlled by Spain, however, Britain and its colonies had access only to limited supplies in the West Indies (especially in Jamaica and the Bahamas) and in Belize, where British woodcutters were permitted under a treaty with Spain.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, however, most of these areas’ best trees had been depleted, creating problems of sourcing and quality control that plagued consumers like Franklin.
But consumer demand for the wood only intensified, spawning a fierce search for new supplies throughout the Caribbean. Private merchants, itinerant woodcutters and large commercial-logging companies all tried to buy up remaining stretches of untapped forest. Meanwhile, imperial nations jockeyed for maritime supremacy and control over this precious, but limited, natural resource.
As a consequence, the colonial mahogany trade became a risky, highly competitive business characterized by intense disputes over forested land and the slave labor used in logging. As international tensions rose, access to tropical timber supplies became a matter of vital strategic concern among warring nations, and even entered into the peace negotiations after the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution.
In the wholesale timber markets of Europe and North America, the far-off contests over mahogany supplies created a minefield for unwary timber buyers and cabinetmakers. West Indian merchants, planters and woodcutters resorted to deceptive practices, such as passing off inferior species of trees as mahogany or engaging in contraband trade with Spanish areas that were off-limits to English woodcutters.
To ensure more knowledgeable and trustworthy timber agents, some cabinetmakers sent family members or former journeymen to serve as their liaisons in the West Indies. In 1760, the Gillows Company, a leading British cabinetmaker, reminded their buying agent that “as there is a good deal of Deception in this article, we need not advise you to procure some good Judge to make choice of Right Jamaica Wood, & see that proper allowance in Measure is made for defficiency.” In many North American seaports, official mahogany surveyors were appointed to measure and grade incoming timber shipments.
Franklin was unusual in his awareness of the hazards of buying mahogany. As a man of science, he had studied the physical properties of the wood quite apart from its superficial beauty. He knew how to evaluate the strength, density, grain, texture and color of each piece. Compared with most furniture buyers, he also had considerable experience with mahogany in his daily life. During an extended stay in England in the 1760s, for example, he patronized some of London’s foremost cabinetmakers to order items for his Philadelphia townhouse.
Although no longer exclusive to the wealthy elite in the late 18th century, the acquisition of a piece of mahogany furniture would still have been a significant investment for most people -- whether a dining table, a desk, a set of chairs or even just a little tea caddy. For consumers without Franklin’s discerning eye, however, buying mahogany furniture was still fraught with uncertainty. They had little choice but to rely on the probity of their cabinetmaker.
Today, New World mahoganies -- still considered among the world’s finest cabinetmaking woods -- are endangered, and their harvesting is strictly regulated. Colonial objects made from the wood are now highly valued antiques. Appreciating the strife and tumult that surrounded the extraction of mahogany in the late 18th century may enrich our understanding of the human and environmental toll this luxurious wood has long taken.
(Jennifer L. Anderson is a professor of history at Stony Brook University. She is the author of “Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America.” The opinions expressed are her own.) Read more from Echoes online.
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